Culture and strategy. Do we have to choose one over the other?

Black and white.
Good and evil.
Anima and animus.
Emotional and rational.
Social and personal.

Is life made of dualities? Strategy and culture are one of these dualities we often encounter business-wise. Are we talking about opposing forces? Dichotomies seem to give us two opposing aspects on different poles, and the choice we have to make is either one or the other. Will we choose to act for good or evil? Will we focus on creating a stable business strategy or distinctive company culture? The thing is, we are much more complex.

There are so many shades between black and white, and we are living proof of the spectrum between those polarities. We are a combination of various qualities, each present by a different degree. Some traits or behaviours may dominate our nature, while others will resurface only on special occasions. We are the best representation of the polarity concept.

There is a scope and extent of each aspect contained within the other. A continuum of polarities exists within us, and we often personify a varying combination of them. Nothing flourishes in extremes, so often, the key is in finding balance. To conclude whether this is the case with company strategy and culture, we need to define the two first.

What is strategy and can you run a business without one?

Before we dive into defining what the term business strategy encompasses, we should take a step back and examine what strategy actually means. The term was introduced 15 centuries ago, originating from the Greek στρατηγία stratēgia, meaning »art of troop leader; office of general, command, generalship«. Military tactics, siegecraft, logistics were just several skill subsets that the »art of the general« embodied. The term strategy evolved through the ages and came to denote a high-level plan to achieve one or more long-term or overall goals under uncertain conditions.

Strategy is not solely reserved for the military quests anymore. Nowadays, it stands tall in all life areas, be it personal development goals, professional life goals or business goals. Our personal strategies are often shaped by our beliefs, values, and personal management system. We hardly go on living our lives, hoping everything will turn out for the better. Even if we don’t have a specific strategy pinned on our vision board, we have at least some sort of a strategy in our minds. What we’ve learned through primary and secondary socialisation and social norms stimulate our goals. Strategizing can sound scary, but we should never forget that the new experiences can serve as an excellent basis for regularly updating our life strategy by having our end goals and vision in mind.

Now, let’s try to grasp what strategy means businesswise. Researchers and practitioners agree that there is no consensus on the subject. Peter Drucker (1954), was the pioneer in addressing the strategy issue. He was under the notion that an organisation’s strategy consists of the answer to two fundamental questions: What is our business, and what should it be? Reflecting on the term’s origin, Drucker didn’t believe that »business is war« or that the business strategy should be associated with an act of warfare. Instead, he thought that strategy should enable an organisation to achieve the desired results in an unpredictable environment. Analysing the company and its marketplace to identify »certainties« was the first strategy development step.

The business strategy should serve as a framework for making both short-term and long-term business decisions. Hundreds of decisions are made in each company daily. From what software should we invest in and use, to marketing, recruiting and sales approaches, and even how each employee should make the most out of their workday. Not having a strategy in place that will guide these decisions, the organisation can be torn in different directions, less effective and profitable, and risks suffering internal confusion and conflict.

To summarise, we can consider business strategy as a set of guiding principles that construct a desired behavioural pattern. It should direct our people to the paths they should and shouldn’t take. Always having the end goal and desired results in mind is what makes both business and life strategies similar. They even point at the same impediments, the worse our starting point is and the more ambitious our goals are, the more effort it will take us to realise said strategy. We should put double the effort in to make it distinguished, and we’ll have to play smarter and work harder to make it a reality.

What is culture?

The term culture might even be more complex and broad than strategy. The consensus case is the same. There is no universal understanding and little consensus within, and even less across disciplines.

Almost seven centuries ago, when the word »culture« first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary, based on the Latin culture, it denoted »cultivation« or »tending the soil«. A couple of centuries later, the term was associated with the phrase »high culture«, implying the cultivation or refinement of mind, taste, and manners. Nowadays, it is defined as the characteristics and knowledge of a particular group of people, encompassing language, religion, cuisine, social habits, music and arts. Simply put, culture is how we are doing things over here.

Consequently, organisational culture is the assortment of values, expectations, and practices that guide and inform the team members’ actions. It can be seen as the ultimate collection of traits that make our companies authentic. The term »organisation culture« refers to the values and beliefs of an organisation. The company culture also determines the way people interact with each other and behave with others outside the company.

Edgar Schein is one of the most prolific psychologists famous for his model of organisational culture. According to him, organisations do not adopt a culture in a single day. They tend to form it as the employees undergo various changes, adapt to the external environment and solve problems. Schein is famous for characterising three levels of organisational culture: artefacts, values, and basic assumptions.

  • Artefacts are the organisational characteristics that individuals can easily view, hear, and feel. A visitor or an ›outsider‹ should also be able to notice them. The architecture and interior design, the office location, the employees’ manner of dressing, and even souvenirs and trophies represent physical artefacts. The language and technology used and the stories and myths circulating among the people are also part of this level. It also includes visible traditions that display ›our way of doing things‹ expressed at ceremonies and rituals, social and leadership practices, and work-related traditions.
  • Values, according to Schein, are at higher levels of consciousness, and they represent the employees’ shared opinion on ›how things should be‹. The members don’t necessarily act according to these values, but they can help them classify their situations and actions as desirable or undesirable.
  • Basic assumptions are the third level that makes the company culture’s core. These kinds of beliefs are never challenged since they are taken as facts. A pattern of basic assumptions evolves among the social group members. Understanding the basic assumptions gives meaning and coherence to the seemingly disconnected and confusing artefacts and values.

Schein noted that the company culture appears and solidifies through positive problem-solving processes and anxiety avoidance. The way the company solves and reacts to problems is a more prominent factor early in its history, as it will commonly face many challenges. How it responds to those earlier challenges will significantly impact the future cultural DNA. Still, every new problem has the potential to be a pivotal opportunity since new issues are not always the same as the old ones. While broader strategies and mindsets may solidify, the culture adapted by problem-solving can evolve.

On the other hand, anxiety avoidance comprises learned reactions that allow groups to minimise anxiety. Seeking order and consistency and figuring ways to minimise internal and external conflict are elements connected to anxiety avoidance. The resulting behaviours are quite stable since we tend to indefinitely repeat the responses that we know will successfully avoid anxiety.

The collision between culture and strategy

Can strategy and culture operate independently in an organisation? Should they be considered separate entities? This capitalist era enforced a result-driven approach to many companies, and many managers seem to use their strategy to justify chasing numbers, KPIs and ROI. Even though some companies might win the numbers race and double their profits, their people might be impaired in the long run. These demanding managers believe that strategy deals with the »real business« and is the route to success. They deem culture only as »panem et circenses«, using this concept just like the emperors of old used sustenance and entertainment to subdue public discontent. Like a nice thing to have that will hopefully make people happier in the foreseeable future. This complete focus on revenue can create burnt-out and overworked employees, and the culture deficit can lead to high levels of friction and productivity decrease.

Some leaders found it tempting to focus on developing strategy more than culture in the past few years of unprecedented change. Most would argue that a strategy that describes a general long-term vision without defining what it requires of the organisation’s culture is bound to fail.

An insightful Harvard Business Review article concludes that culture is always the winner when strategy and culture collide. Even the famous Peter Drucker quote says that »culture eats strategy for breakfast«. Drucker pointed out the significance of the people factor, implying that regardless of how effective your strategy may be, your company’s culture always determines its success. Even if you have the most detailed and solid strategy in place, chances are, your projects will fail if the people executing said strategy don’t nurture the appropriate culture.

Culture doesn’t refer only to bean-bag chairs at the office game room. It indicates how people act in critical situations, respond to various challenges and manage pressure, treat partners, customers, and each other. If they don’t share the leader’s passion for the company’s vision, the strategy won’t stand a chance since they won’t be keen on implementing the plan in the first place. The company will most likely struggle to execute even the trivial daily strategies, and accomplishing a new one would be out of the question.

As we all know, change is not easy, and people are prone to resistance, especially when it comes to things they are used to and hold dear. Some leaders might battle cultural intransigence for years. Connecting their desired culture with their strategy and business goals might give the profound answer to the question: Why do we want to change our culture?

Culture and strategy need to work in synergy

We need to spend a significant effort and time planning and strategizing, but company culture happens whether we work on developing one or not. There are cases it’s created unintentionally by the founders and executives. It’s worth noting that their actions speak louder than words in the process of culture creation. As time goes by, cultures tend to evolve even though modifying them on purpose can be a pretty complex process. These unplanned developments are not always for the better, and even though it might sound counterintuitive, leaders shouldn’t fight them but work with and within them.

Culture doesn’t have to trump strategy. They should work together in harmony, complementing each other’s success. Alignment is clearly essential, but it’s getting even more challenging over the past few years as priorities and strategies change in the blink of an eye. To help our people understand the ever-changing strategy, we should recognise them and show appreciation for their successes tied to our company’s values, purpose or objectives. We can ensure our team stays aligned with our business needs in their daily tasks by encouraging them to frequently and instantaneously praise their colleagues for delivering on said expectations.

Developing an in-depth understanding of what people need from each other to perform well is vital in driving complementarity between strategy and culture. We should always make an effort to learn how the culture really works while creating the strategy. Try to grasp what people talk about, criticise, prefer, remember, and admire in the company, and ponder their stories, tonality, and language. By listening and empathising, we will find the unwritten norms and values that characterise the culture and the most prominent strategy enablers (communication, technology, tools, incentives, compensation, and benefits) behind the seemingly concealed sentiments. Take the opportunity to analyse how the cultural weaknesses, like particular mindsets, assumptions, and practices, for instance, reflect on goals and productivity. You’ll probably find they limit the exploration of new prospects and potentials, preventing superior performance and higher growth levels.

To achieve the desired synergy, we need to focus on appreciating and incorporating people’s perspectives, mindsets, and skillsets. The most successful companies managed to develop a culture that has grown greater and more powerful than any individual. People are often inspired to conform to a strong culture since it’s the thing that links everyone together, no matter the department they’re in. When people become engaged with the company, the business strategy is more likely to be perceived as a personal one.

When culture and strategy are created simultaneously, they are more prone to be aligned and in full sync to complement and stimulate each other. This harmony fosters the creation of incredible organisational transformations. When we understand our business’ authentic culture, we’re familiar with all the factors, so creating a strategic business plan is almost effortless.

When we say that culture is critical, we’re not undermining strategy and leadership. A particular strategy a company employs has better prospects of thriving if it is supported by the fitting cultural characteristics. Strategy is important, but if we’re looking for long-term success, it must be accompanied by a strong culture. While the strategy will answer all the »what«, culture should define just »how« people will put it into good practice. Prospering companies don’t think of culture as an obstacle they need to tackle but as a change accelerator, their competitive advantage. Even if companies are performance-driven, they need to be primarily person-centred and values-led.

Jörg Müngersdorff

Spectrum of Balance – A cultural model for organizations

The cultural model »Spectrum of Balance« was developed by SYNNECTA in co-creation with partners at other companies. It gives culture a language and thus people in organizations a basis for reflection and discussion. The model is descriptive and not normative. It is easy to understand and can be used in a simple and flexible way. It is available in German as well as in English, now.

At the beginning of a transformation process in an industrial company with more than 30,000 employees, the CEO emphasized: 50% of the success is due to the reorganization and the implementation of the new strategy, but 50% lies in the transformation of the corporate culture! Peter Drucker with his statement »Culture eats strategy for breakfast« sends his regards.

Now, from our point of view, it makes only little sense to set up and implement culture transformation as another change project, according to the principle: 1) analyze current culture, 2) define »to be« culture and 3) implement (s. also blog »Mission Statements in Times of hybrid Societies«). Why?

On the one hand, culture is omnipresent and manifests permanently in our feelings, thoughts and actions and thus in communication, cooperation, and leadership of organizations. On the other hand, culture is intangible, constantly in flux and its effects are often not consciously perceived by people. Much is hidden and part of the relationships. Personal perception and interpretation by individuals and social groups have an impact on experiencing the culture, too. Finally, the context plays an important role. As a result, there is neither »the« or »the right« culture for everyone in an organization, nor can culture be transformed in a mechanistical manner.

It is most appropriate to recognize and understand culture and cultural patterns by reflecting and discussing it with others. This requires words and a common language as well as possibilities to state differences. There are already many cultural models that can be used for this exercise. However, they often use a normative approach (e.g., Spiral Dynamics or the model described by F. Laloux in »Reinventing Organizations«).

Rüdiger Müngersdorff therefore designed a non-normative cultural model based on five cultural aspects or dimensions, which was elaborated in an internal SYNNECTA project group. It can be used in discussions with individuals and small groups on an ad hoc basis or in a more structured way in workshops and large-scale events. In the context of a cultural transformation process, it may serve as a basic model. It can be customized in terms of content and language as well as methods and processes. We have already gathered many positive experiences with its usage in various organizations.

In addition, we further developed the model with partners (see below) from various HR and OD departments of the Bosch Group. After several iteration loops, the »Spectrum of Balance« cultural model consists of six cultural aspects:

  • Openness (aqua)
  • Autonomy (yellow)
  • Community (green)
  • Motion (orange)
  • Structure (blue)
  • Energy (red)

To each aspect or dimension an aspect card give a concise description of the content and an evaluation card sketches possible expressions, how people may experience the respective aspect in a positive (healthy) or in a negative (unhealthy) way.

Furthermore, the original model includes change cards, which provide initial ideas and indications of what can be done, to strengthen a particular cultural aspect in an organization, depending on the current situation / cultural balance.

The model has been used in workshops, large scale events as well as so-called Open Office events. Therefore, different scripts are available.

Thomas Meilinger

Our co-creative development partners: Germán Barona (Bosch Corporate – Leadership, Learning and Organization Culture), Harald Baumann (Bosch Rexroth, Deployment Business Excellenz), Benjamin Berger (Bosch Powertrain Solutions, Divisional Business Transformation), Laura Heim (Bosch Corporate – Leadership, Learning and Organization Culture), Sybille Payer (ETAS GmbH, Personell and Organizational Development), Anna Prieschl (ETAS GmbH, Personell and Organizational Development). Photo: Paul Hanaoka by

»Same same, but different«

European thoughts on Thai culture

»Same same, but different« – what does the salesman across the street mean with this strange sentence? You can hear it coming from every corner of the city when on a stroll in Bangkok. What is the sense behind it? it seems to be due to that exact lack of sense that this expression has become cult in Thailand, to the extent one can now find it printed on T-shirts. Still, this new fashion statement doesn’t solve the mystery of what the salesmen are trying to convey.

To be honest – we really don’t know. Since the sentence is being used almost universally and for any purpose, it seems to be on its way to becoming stranger than it already is. However, when you decide to take a closer look at this seemingly completely absurd sentence, you will discover that it might, in the end, actually have a meaning.

All humans are anatomically and physically equal, regardless of their area of origin. We are all humans, and therefore we are all »the same«. However, particular cultural circlesdiffer from each other and so are »different«. We are born, grow up and are influenced by the people around us. We adopt the values, norms and traditions of our particular culture, and this way become a part of an organisation. As a result, many different cultural spheres emerged around the world, some with considerable differences.

When we decided, a few months ago, to do an internship at SYNNECTA Bangkok, we were fully aware of the fact that we would be hurling ourselves into cultural adventures. Our expectations lived up to the reality of our daily life, a world with a completely different mentality to ours.

We arrived in a colourful and multifaceted city with splendid temples and a multitude of people. Five weeks of living in Bangkok have taught us that the Thais are extraordinarily relaxed people. For instance, at the airport, a place most Europeans would consider rushed and stressful, we were amazed to sense a lack of stress in the atmosphere. This easy attitude towards life is palpable even in exhausting situations and places such as this. A simple sigh seems to be enough for a Thai to get over a stressful situation, as for example the heavily hectic and chaotic rush-hour traffic, which usually makes us Europeans rather annoyed and aggressive.

Bangkok is thus dominated by a take-it-easy-lifestyle. However, this attitude has a negative effect when dealing with the environment and sustainability. Waste production is considerable, its removal and reprocessing dreadful, and a large pollution cloud is hanging above the city. The air-circulation above the streets is also limited due to all the skyscraper constructions. All these elements have proven to be hazardous to health.

Thai people are renowned for their kindness. Regardless of whether in the supermarket, on the streets or in the public bus, the Thai people are always smiling and helpful, especially when selling.

Another noticeable aspect of Thai life is the economical pressure. As consumer goods abound, so does competition. Uncountable salesmen permanently try to advertise their products by approaching potential customers. They might appear very open and extravert whilst doing their job, but getting to know their personal side can prove to be rather hard, as they fiercely protect their privacy. This reticence could be explained by the fact that they do not seem completely comfortable with the English language.

Every day, we continue to encounter these contradictions. On one hand, this country shows off an exaggerated openness which can be overwhelming to us, yet Thai people also appear to cherish their conservative attitudes and traditions.

All these characteristics are particular pieces of the Thai cultural puzzle. A city’s culture does not only influence its inhabitants, it plays a non-negligible role for foreigners who visit country as well.

Tactfulness is always important, especially in a business context. National cultures have an enormous influence on the way companies are led, as shown by Geert Hofstede’s study »National Influences«. To maximize your success rate with international corporations, it is necessary to study the culture they operate within, and behave accordingly in day-to-day business practice. It is therefore advisable to ask a citizen from this culture for expertise, since the key to success resides in people, and therefore their culture.

Alexandra Dick, Tonja Passolt